It was a dispiriting spectacle. Slumped and a bit sweaty, the newly elected Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, squirmed in his seat on Channel 4 News on Friday, repeatedly dodging Cathy Newman’s pointed questioning. But this wasn’t another exercise in wary, soundbite politicking – another party-political husk offering soft answers as he ‘waits for the report to come out’. No, this was something different, something grimmer.
For Newman wasn’t asking Farron about policy, law or his plans for the much-mocked #LibDemFightback. She was asking about his privately held beliefs. Farron, you see, is a Christian, and a proper one at that. In 2007, he called abortion a ‘tragedy’, and he abstained from voting on the gay-marriage bill in 2013, citing concerns about religious conscience. ‘Christianity’, he once said, ‘is not “a bit” true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly, utterly true that almost nothing else matters’. None of that Magic FM in the Chilterns guff here.
For Newman, this was enough to call his entire legitimacy as a liberal into question. She asked whether he considered homosexuality a sin, to which he quite eloquently responded: ‘It’s not our views on religion that matter. What matters is whether we go out and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they want to be – and that’s what makes a liberal.’ Newman was unconvinced; she asked twice again.
An inevitable backlash followed. A two-minute Twitterhate broke out and then the MPs got stuck in, never missing an opportunity to land some cheap shots. ‘For a liberal, I thought his position seemed incredibly illiberal’, said Labour deputy-leadership hopeful Ben Bradshaw, echoing a prescient Times editorial the morning before the interview, pithily titled ‘Illiberal Democrat’.
Even those who remained sympathetic to Farron felt he was being unduly evasive and disingenuous. But, while Farron did go out of his way to shorn off his few remaining edges in the run up to the ballot – insisting that he supports gay marriage, expounding on transgender rights, and backtracking on abortion – he was not just dodging the question here. Rather, the question was irrelevant. Believing people should have the right to live their lives as they see fit, free from state-enforced morality or social coercion, is the essence of liberalism. That doesn’t mean you have to approve of how people choose to use their liberty. His private views, his superstitions, his God-bothering, have no bearing on his ability to govern – so long as he doesn’t go imposing them on others.